NAPA, Calif. -- "The Autumn Wind," they say, is a Raider, but the breeze that sweeps across California's wine country these July nights, plunging the temperature well after Oakland's preseason practices have concluded, feels neither brash nor swashbuckling.
It is the air of uncertainty that permeates all things Raiders these days, and frankly has for several years.
There's uncertainty over the future of the franchise in terms of ownership and their stadium. Uncertainty over just how long this new coaching and front office regime will be given to try to stabilize the reeling organization. Uncertainty at the all-important quarterback position, and whether acquisition Matt Flynn is the man to lead Oakland to better times. Uncertainty over precisely if -- or when -- this club will climb from the depths of the AFC and re-emerge with the swagger and bombast that defined them under Al Davis in the 1970s and much of the '80s, when NFL Films guru Steve Sabol so aptly captured their iconoclastic renegade spirit with a poem and music that remain Oakland's game-day battle hymn, but hardly seems appropriate anymore.
As much as some groused about Davis as he approached the end of his life, and the Raiders surely have foundered since reaching the Super Bowl in 2002, his son Mark has done little to quiet that chorus as he now enters a third year (and second full season) in total control following his father's passing. Gone is Amy Trask, Al Davis' most trusted business ally, as she abruptly resigned this offseason with the team's stadium prospects as murky and bleak as ever (continuing as is in the decrepit Oakland Coliseum is fiscally untenable).
Mark Davis has already displayed some of his father's short fuse, making serious overtures to Mike Holmgren to take over as a football czar last year -- after Holmgren just suffered in that role in that role in Cleveland -- and considering more sweeping changes with GM Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen (at 40 the youngest coach in football) not even a full year into their tenure, according to league sources. Davis' overblown reaction to less-than-favorable press clippings -- firing the PR staff -- sent a poor message, and some wonder if the steady hand and stability this franchise so craves will come under his leadership.
But right now, so early in camp, trying to rebound from a 4-12 season, and still digging out of the salary cap and budgetary disaster left over from the end of Al Davis's final spending sprees, the focus is centered on a much more micro level. No one on this staff right now will be able to control or contain Davis in regards to those overarching issues, and their job security could well depend on how quickly they make strides with a roster that still carries no shortage of blemishes and questions given how deep a hole they walked into.
"You can't run away from it, you can't hide and you can't sugarcoat it," McKenzie said of the problems inherited upon his hire in 2012. "You sit back and evaluate the situation and you put a plan in to say, 'This is how we're going to do it.'
"With a salary cap in place, you have to figure out a way, and sometimes those steps hinder you from doing certain things, but it forces decisions, also. So you just have to suck it up and make some tough decisions, and we'll replace this situation later, and you move on. "Next year we won't be handcuffed to where I have to cut this guy and that guy and this guy so I can meet the salary cap. I'm not in that situation moving forward. So I'm pleased with the direction we're going, and there was no way we could get all of that done in one year. But the key was to move forward with it, and not just keep moving backwards or keep treading water. I want to get this team competitive as quick as possible."
If nothing else they have reached a stage where they no longer have to experience addition by subtraction. And they no longer have the most unique circumstance of a first-time owner, first-time general manager and first-time head coach.
"If you look at our organization, we really started from the infant stages," Allen said. "What I mean by that is, all of the leaders within the organization were in their first year in their roles ... When your three organization decision makers are all rookies in their jobs, you're going to hit some rough spots and face some tough things, and then you put on top of that some of the challenges that we came into that we had to deal with."
You can only applaud McKenzie for swallowing hard and gutting the roster of over-priced players and bloated contracts -- including perpetually disenchanted quarterback Carson Palmer, whose very acquisition from the Bengals robbed McKenzie of so many top draft picks he so covets. Those picks would have been exactly the kind of young cheap talent this team requires. In fact, let me get this out of the way now, it's difficult not to root for McKenzie and Allen.
They have taken on an immense challenge here. They are good, engaging men who have worked to create a more people-friendly culture in Oakland in so much as they can. They have been groomed by excellent coaches and/or personnel men and they are fully invested in this difficult chore. With time, I believe, they will make progress if given the measure of infrastructure, support, resources and timeframe anyone would need in this situation.
And, to their credit, both McKenzie and Allen remain as buoyant, optimistic and enthusiastic as ever about the 2013 Oakland Raiders.
"I like this team's mentality," McKenzie said. "They believe in what we're doing, they like what we're doing and they're working at it hard to get what's been set for them by the coaches to carry out what we're trying to get done. And I like the young talent that we've got. "I like the way that what some in the media call 'no-name guys' -- I like the way they're working. They've got that in them to surprise some people ... We've got some really good football players that are going to show some people they're on the verge of knocking on that Pro Bowl door. We feel pretty good."
They feel as if they are changing a culture that had become accustomed to losing.
"You try to put your own stamp on it," Allen said, "and we've got a little bit of a different way of doing things than how it's been done here before, a little different philosophy on the way we want things done. And sometimes in doing that you have to take a step back before you take two steps forward ... Now we can start stacking the bricks and setting the foundation for our program."
To that end, I expect Matt Flynn to be the opening-day quarterback, holding off Terrelle Pryor and rookie Tyler Wilson. McKenzie has a feel for Flynn from when they were together in Green Bay, and he seems to be a fit for the "game-manager" model McKenzie is looking for in a passer and team leader.
"I'm not saying he's Aaron Rodgers, because he's not," McKenzie said, "but he is a solid NFL quarterback regardless of what some others might say."
The Raiders believe that former first-round pick Darren McFadden, injury prone and inconsistent to this point, will put it all together this season. They are tweaking some schemes to suit him, blending more power stuff with zone plays, and McFadden has the ultimate motivation of being in his contract year.
"You're definitely going to see a different runner," McKenzie said. "He's going to be better than last season, I guarantee you that. We just want to see him out there every Sunday. Both on and off the field he wants to show people who he is."
Defensively, Allen is too good a coach on that side of the ball for the Raiders not to improve. The team feels very good about the burgeoning leadership of defensive lineman LaMarr Houston and the veteran presence guys like Andre Carter and Charles Woodson provide. And they will take every precaution with first-round pick D.J. Hayden as the corner comes back from missing much of last season in college due to a heart procedure and his subsequent absence from much of offseason work. McKenzie said regardless of the strides the rookie makes, they may not let him get considerable reps until the final preseason game. No matter how great Hayden says he feels, "We're going to just take it slow," McKenzie says.
Allen is considerably more comfortable in his role now, with it being impossible to prepare for all of the unforeseen things that come your way at that helm. "Until you actually sit in that seat and see everything that slides across your desk," Allen said, "you don't realize the volume of things that you're in charge of."
McKenzie said: "One thing about DA, you're not going to fool him twice. If he sees something -- whether it's how he dealt with a certain player or how he handled practice, whatever it is -- he is going to continue to improve, because he is a student of the game, he's a student of people and he's definitely a great communicator."
Still, there is reason for concern, both short- and long-term.
Many expect them to be a contender not for the playoffs, but for the first overall pick. Can they get a suitable location to play their games? Will Davis be as patient and deft and nuanced as is required? Will he flirt again with Holmgren and perhaps start over? His affinity for Jon Gruden is no secret and several well-connected NFL people believe Davis may try to woo Gruden to be his coach/team president soon enough (though they also wonder if Davis could pony up the requisite dollars to do so, and also doubt Gruden would come back to Oakland given all of the aforementioned uncertainty about the direction of the franchise).
Regardless, Davis would do well to give his coach and GM some time and space. If you hire a head coach in his 30s, barring total collapse, give the man at least three seasons to show his merits and keep in mind there are reasons why the Raiders haven't finished above .500 in over a decade. "We're going to keep stacking bricks, and build this thing for the long term," Allen said.
One hopes he's given that chance.